As David Adjmi’s Marie Antoinette begins at Soho Rep, actors array tiers of delectable pastel macarons. You might be tempted to snatch one. Restrain yourself. Adjmi is a playwright with a singular fascination for human cruelty, both perpetrated and suffered. He has rarely met a bonbon or bon mot he didn’t want to blight. If you took a truffle during his Elective Affinities, also produced by Soho Rep, you were likely to feel somewhat ill after. In Adjmi’s work, even the most innocent-seeming sweetmeats have bitter fillings—brutality, acid, blood.
Marie Antoinette is a study of the corrosive and confining price of celebrity. Adjmi dresses up the familiar story of the doomed queen with ample anachronism and linguistic frisk. Marie (Marin Ireland) seems an ancient regime real housewife with an even larger house and (courtesy costume designer Anka Lupes and wig designer Amanda Miller) rather better style. Teasing her hair while Paris burns, she enthuses about lapdogs and pastry (“The linzer tortes omigod”), even as she complains about life at court: “it’s SUFFOCATING ME.” She recites every line with a prettily vapid rising inflection.
This could be a mere goof and certainly Adjmi writes plenty of japes, maybe too many. “I’m tired,” Marie moans. “Three feet of hair is a workout.” Later she tells an admirer, “The night Louis and I were married there was a violent thunderstorm and they had to cancel the fireworks, and it’s been like that ever since.” Director Rebecca Taichman sensibly lets the actors indulge the comedy, even as she allows it to transform into something more troubling and sinister.
Designer Stephen Strawbridge keeps the light shining on the audience, implicating us in Marie’s fall. When we first see her with her Sèvres porcelain and piles of dainties, hair swirled to empyrean heights, we might indeed feel she deserves a comeuppance. Well, she gets it and more. Macarons cede to just deserts, gowns to rags, quips to insane ramblings, gilded dream to caustic nightmare. And still the degradation continues. We are powerless to stop the violence, and what we may have once desired we now deplore. Or, Adjmi asks, do we?
Ireland, a Soho Rep darling, doesn’t condescend to Marie. Though an actress of considerable intelligence, she never makes herself smarter than the character and ably expresses Adjmi’s tonal variations. If she can’t quite play an impossible mad scene, it’s hard to conceive of an actor who could, and she excels elsewhere with able assists from Marsha Stephanie Blake and Jennifer Ikeda as her illusive friends, Karl Miller as her supercilious brother, Steven Rattazzi (a putto with a five o’clock shadow) as her childlike husband, and David Greenspan as a frightening sheep. (Yes. A sheep. And yes, truly scary.)
Many tragedies include scenes of recognition, in which a Hamlet or an Oedipus comes to terms with what he has effected and endured. Adjmi denies Marie any such reckoning. Early in the play, she remarks, “Sometimes I feel like I’m not even a person.” But even as she grasps toward enlightenment, at the end she seems no more whole. As she hallucinates in her cell, she describes her life as “like some awful dream and it’s never been mine.” She goes to her death unaware, unreconciled, unredeemed.
That’ll stick in your throat.